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Navy bombs Chocolate Mountains – Reader sends first journalist to visit

The place to come to get your big deer

CH-53 marine helicopter airlifts a cannon. What we have allowed to happen is an insult to nature.
  • CH-53 marine helicopter airlifts a cannon. What we have allowed to happen is an insult to nature.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

The night before I entered the Chocolate Mountains, I saw them in a dream. Their profile against a luminous horizon was dark and twisted, their canyons deep and hidden in shadows. The mountains seemed beautiful and intriguing to me, but there was another quality about them, too. Hanging in the air over the mountains, I saw in my sleep, was some unknown danger, a black pall, like a curse in a child's fairy tale.

Navy attack trainer en route to target. I realized there were some very pragmatic reasons for the Marines to allow me to visit the Chocolate Mountains at this time.

Navy attack trainer en route to target. I realized there were some very pragmatic reasons for the Marines to allow me to visit the Chocolate Mountains at this time.

The next day, as I was driving east on Interstate 8, east of El Centro, I caught a waking glimpse of the Chocolate Mountains. They were still twenty miles to the northeast, but a rainstorm the night before had cleared the air, and the crest of the range appeared sharp and brilliant in the desert sunlight. I wasn’t too surprised to see that its profile matched, in a less dramatic way, the one in my dream. I had, after all, seen the Chocolate Mountains many times before, from many different vantage points, and their profile had become familiar to me. They were indeed dark and rugged, just as I had seen them in my dream, but missing from this sunlit view was the pall, the curse I had seen the night before. The sky above the Chocolates was sweet and blue.

One of the military’s most insistent arguments for renewing the military reservation in the Chocolates is that the area could never be made safe for the public.

One of the military’s most insistent arguments for renewing the military reservation in the Chocolates is that the area could never be made safe for the public.

Like many other wilderness lovers, I’ve wanted to enter the Chocolate Mountains for many years. They represent a mystery, an unknown element in the terrain of California’s deserts. Since World War II, the Chocolate Mountains have been a military bombing and gunnery range and have been strictly off-limits to the public. Until recently, that has been reason enough to keep most law-abiding citizens out of the range; but lately, with the growing environmental interest in California's deserts, wilderness lovers have begun questioning the military's right to keep the public out of these lands.

A training attack plane drops its load. “Of the 400 square miles, we probably bomb on less than ten percent of it.”

A training attack plane drops its load. “Of the 400 square miles, we probably bomb on less than ten percent of it.”

Within the California Desert Conservation Area (which encompasses the lands owned by the federal government in the Southern California deserts), one-eighth of the land — more than three million acres — is controlled by the military. Besides the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range, these areas under military jurisdiction include China Lake Naval Weapons Center, Fort Irwin, Twenty-nine Palms Marine Corps Base, and Edwards Air Force Base. If one also considered Camp Pendleton, San Clemente Island, Yuma Proving Ground, and the Goldwater (Luke) Air Force Range, perhaps as much as one-quarter of the land within 150 miles of San Diego is controlled by the military.

“And what about journalists? Have they also been allowed into the Chocolates?”
“You’re the first to ask."

“And what about journalists? Have they also been allowed into the Chocolates?” “You’re the first to ask."

In 1980, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published its environmental impact statement on all the lands within the California Desert Conservation Area, the military holdings were almost totally ignored because the BLM considered it inevitable that these lands would remain in military control. In the case of the Chocolate Mountains, an environmental impact statement was later submitted, in 1982, though it was prepared by the Department of the Navy and was almost laughable in its biased treatment of the range. Nevertheless, the BLM approved that impact statement.

A few weeks ago, the Marines caught scrap-metal collectors who were sneaking into the range to steal the high-grade aluminum from the bomb Fins; the scrappers were said to have been earning as much as $500 a week.

A few weeks ago, the Marines caught scrap-metal collectors who were sneaking into the range to steal the high-grade aluminum from the bomb Fins; the scrappers were said to have been earning as much as $500 a week.

I decided about a year ago that I was going to the Chocolate Mountains — with or without military approval. Not only was I curious about the mountains, but I felt the public had a right to know what was happening there. In terms of land use, there's a kind of martial law operating in the Chocolate Mountains and in many other areas like it. It seemed to me that by denying the public access to the range, the military had eliminated the problem of a constituency that knew and cared enough about the Chocolate Mountains to insist they be managed for the long-term benefit of the resources there.

Published information about the Chocolate Mountains is almost nonexistent, and it's even difficult to acquire accurate maps of the range. Once, at the UCSD library, I happened upon a series of aerial photos of the Chocolate Mountains. I studied those photos until I knew the major landmarks of the range, then, turning the photos over, I saw, stamped on the back, this warning: "Confidential — the information in this document could affect the security of the United States of America." The navy told me later that it isn’t doing anything secret in the Chocolate Mountains; nevertheless, the aerial photos and the negatives have since disappeared from the library.

By late September, my plan for entering the Chocolate Mountains had developed to the point that my backpack was packed with food, water, maps, and binoculars; my truck was fueled; and I was trying to decide whether I should tell my wife where I was going or if that would only cause her to worry. Then, almost miraculously, I got a call from a public information officer at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma, which controls the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range. It was a Chief Warrant Officer Bennett. ‘‘We’ve made arrangements for your visit to the Chocolates,” He said. “How soon can you be here?”

I’d almost forgotten about my formal request to the Marine Corps to visit the Chocolate Mountains. I had been denied access to military bases before, and I never seriously expected them to allow me into the gunnery range. I was immediately suspicious. Another public information officer at Yuma had already provided me with inaccurate information. But Bennett had a slight Southern accent that sounded earnest and sincere. “The timing is perfect,” he said. “We’re between training exercises, and our ground crews are in the range cleaning up and building new targets. Can you be here at 0700 on Wednesday?”

“I’ll be there,” I said.

Later I realized there were some very pragmatic reasons for the Marines to allow me to visit the Chocolate Mountains at this time. There happens to be a bill before Congress — the California Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 1987 — to renew the Department of the Navy’s right to use the Chocolate Mountains as a bombing range. (The Marine Corps, which is a branch of the Department of the Navy, manages the Chocolate Mountains for the use of all branches of the military. The Bureau of Land Management is a branch of the Department of the Interior.) According to the Department of the Interior, which holds title to the southern half of the range, the navy has been operating in the Chocolate Mountains without legal authority since 1973. In 1986 a bill had been passed by Congress renewing the military’s leases on all of its reservations in the West, except for China Lake (near Ridgecrest) and the Chocolate Mountains in Imperial County. As one Marine officer later explained it to me, these two areas were Senator Alan Cranston’s “hostages,” presumably to be used for leverage in his proposed desert wilderness bill.

Furthermore, as part of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, all the military lands in Southern California were supposed to be undergoing a public review process, to be completed by the BLM by 1991. The BLM was already being sued by the National Wildlife Federation for its ineffective handling of that review, and the agency could ill afford more public criticism.

As Bennett had put it, the timing was perfect. If the Marines expected to have their lease on the Chocolate Mountains renewed, they were going to have to play along with the public review process, which included the distasteful prospect of providing journalists with accurate information about the range. As far as I was able to determine, a journalist had never even been allowed into the range before.

It wasn’t so long ago, really — just a hundred years — that the Cocopa Indians hunted deer and bighorn sheep in the Chocolate Mountains. The abundance of sleeping circles and rock art there is evidence of how often they visited those mountains. Later, American miners roamed the mountains in search of gold, which they found in small quantities, mostly in the Mary Lode Mine, which was developed in the 1930s, and the older Pegleg Mine.

But the military's occupation of the Chocolate Mountains didn’t begin until 1942, when the army used the mountains for artillery firing, tank training, and aerial gunnery exercises. At that time, the land was owned by the Department of the Interior, as well as by some private landholders. The military acquired title to the northern half of the range through the Wartime Powers Act. It wasn’t until 1963 that the government formalized the military’s use of the southern portion of the range (252,126 acres, or about 400 square miles). That withdrawal of public lands for use by the Department of the Navy was only for a period of five years, with the Department of the Interior retaining actual title to the land. After its expiration in 1968, the withdrawal was renewed until 1973. Since then, no further action has been taken by Congress, though the Chocolates have continued to be used by all branches of the military, primarily for training pilots in bombing, strafing, missile firing, and laser targeting.

CWO Bennett met me at the front gate of the Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma at precisely 7:00 a.m. He was stocky, heavily muscled, and seemed grimly determined to do his job by the book.

I followed him to the chief executive officer’s expansive office, a plushly-carpeted, red-curtained affair. I was greeted by a battery of crisply attired majors and lieutenant colonels with firm handshakes. “What paper is it you’re from again?'' one of them asked, and when I told him, he seemed relieved in not recognizing it. Apparently I worked for one of those little throwaway rags over on the coast, and I wasn’t likely to cause them any real grief.

I was ushered into a comfortable chair, and the curtains were drawn. Bennett looked nervous as he began the briefing. He’d been ordered to provide me with information, yet his superiors were there to see that he didn’t provide me with the wrong kind of information.

He began explaining the navy’s use of the Chocolate Mountains, while slides of combat aircraft flashed on the screen in front of us. The information came in heavy, devastating barrages, interspersed with a machine-gun flurry of facts and figures: With the Chocolate Mountains and the Luke Range, in Arizona, the air station controls more than one and a half million acres. The aerial gunnery range is used seven days a week, by all branches of the military. The weather in Yuma is favorable for bombing ninety-two percent of the time. The air station dropped 3200 tons of explosives in 1986. The pilots use live explosive, in order to create “the fog of war” — actual combat conditions. The Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range is the only place in the United States where the military can drop live ordnance — except for Fallon, Nevada; the Yuma Proving Ground, in Arizona; China Lake Naval Weapons Center; San Clemente Island; and several ranges in Oregon and Washington.

Maybe it was just the aftershave fumes in the room, but as the slide show ended. I was beginning to feel a bit lightheaded. “That’s all very impressive," I said. “I don’t want you to get the impression I don’t approve of training pilots. I just wonder if the Chocolate Mountains is the proper place to be doing it."

One of the colonels sitting beside me nodded, yawned, and glanced at his watch. It was a dangerous world out there, and he had more important things to do than listen to such nonsense.

Lt. Colonel Isaly, a rather methodical and self-assured man, continued the briefing. “This isn’t an irreplaceable national resource.” he said, tapping his finger on a map of the Chocolate Mountains. “We know there are some archaeological sites in the southern sector, so we have said we won’t open any more target areas there.... There are no endangered species. I don’t believe there are any threatened species. We’ve got some sensitive species — the desert tortoise."

I didn’t want to waste the morning arguing with the colonel, but the fact was that the military hasn’t stopped bombing long enough to conduct a serious study of the wildlife in the Chocolates. They say it’s very expensive to halt the training exercises to allow study teams to go into the range. Still, using information from BLM reports, it’s possible to draw up a partial list of sensitive, rare, threatened, or endangered species either known to be in the Chocolate Mountains or possibly living there. That list would include: the bighorn sheep, the golden eagle, the bald eagle, the prairie falcon, the Yuma clapper rail, the California black rail, the flat-tailed horned lizard, and the desert tortoise. There are also two plant communities found in the Chocolates that the BLM has termed "extraordinary”: the Munz cholla and the allthorn. The soil type throughout the Chocolate Mountains has been classified by the BLM as “extremely sensitive to surface disturbance." Furthermore, the Indian petroglyphs in the southern sector are considered to be of such value that the site is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historical Places.

“Of the 400 square miles, we probably bomb on less than ten percent of it,” Isaly went on. "Except for the impact areas, which are sacrifice areas ... the rest of that area out there is very pristine. The wildlife people tell us it is pristine because of our activity out there. The encroachment by miners, four-wheelers, what have you, would have devastated that area far more than our activity.”

I considered this argument to be absurd, like the wife beater who maintains he's protecting his wife’s virtue by making her unattractive to other men. “If Congress can set aside a tract of land for military use, they can also set the same area aside for the preservation of wildlife and wilderness," I noted. Still, there was something to the colonel’s point. It's a fact that there are mining and geothermal interests that have their lustful eyes on the Chocolates. Goldfield Mining, for example, a corporate mining outfit, is already operating a huge (and by all accounts successful) open-pit mine on the southwestern border of the gunnery range.

“Goldfield — they strip mine,” Isaly said, “They take huge quantities of earth — 500 tons for one ounce of gold. They’re one of the major interests that want to expand into the Chocolates.”

The officers seemed as eager to conclude the briefing as I was to get on with my visit to the Chocolates, so the curtains were opened and we all shook hands again. On our way out, Isaly mentioned they had recently held a similar briefing for a group of congressional aides, who later flew over the range.

“And what about journalists?” I asked. “Have they also been allowed into the Chocolates?”

Isaly gave me an odd, almost pained, expression. “You’re the first to ask,” he said.

There were three Marines accompanying me to the Chocolates: CWO Bennett, a driver, and Major Bruce Lohmond. Lohmond was a tall, balding pilot with the outdoorsy casualness of an enlisted man. His title was “Ground Services Coordinator,” which was something of a mystery to me — until we stopped by his office, where a red-and-yellow sign was posted in the parking lot. It read: Targets-R-Us.

We headed west, then north out of Yuma, passing the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, as well as a finger of the Chocolate Mountains known as Quartz Peak. The rocky landscape was covered with desert varnish, which gave it a brown-to-reddish hue.

Against this dark backdrop were the colorful and graceful patterns of ocotillo and palo verde trees. The main crest of the Chocolates, twenty miles long, stretched out ahead of us like the spine of a giant lizard.

After a few more miles, we turned west and entered the bombing range. The boundary was well-marked with signs warning people away. The warning was repeated in Spanish, since the back roads of the gunnery range are frequently used by illegal aliens trying to avoid the border patrol’s checkpoints. “We found a group of them out here the other day,” Lohmond said. “Their coyote just pointed them in the direction they were supposed to go and left them. Three of them had already died of heat exhaustion, and the others would have died if we hadn’t found them.”

The air station spends $50,000 a year on warning signs, but the Marines say there is little else they can do to keep people out of the gunnery range. It’s a vast area, and fences would be as ineffective as they are along the Mexican border. The Marines occasionally patrol the range by helicopter, but Lohmond admitted that was a haphazard and mostly useless exercise.

“We just don't have the manpower to patrol it,” he shrugged. Then, giving me a rather direct look, he added. “You could take your backpack and head off across one of these washes, and there's nothing we could do to stop you.”

As I had expected, the Chocolates were hot, dry, and harsh — like all desert mountain ranges. This is one element that makes them so intriguing. Far more dangerous than the climate, though, at least to the foolhardy, was the threat of unexploded weapons. “Not long ago, a kid picked up a forty-millimeter grenade launcher and threw it over his shoulder,” Lohmond said. “They’re highly sensitive. The kill radius on those is about forty meters. It opened him up. I guess he was shielded by a rock or something, or he wouldn’t be alive.”

A few years ago, a man from Niland who said he’d been an explosives expert during World War II was trying to use a monkey wrench to open a rocket he’d found on the bombing range. It blew up, killing him, wounding his wife and two other people. More recently a man was found dragging a 500-pound bomb on a chain behind his jeep; he said he wanted to take it back to his campground. And just a few weeks ago, the Marines caught a group of scrap-metal collectors who were sneaking into the range to steal the high-grade aluminum from the bomb Fins; each of the fins is worth about thirty dollars, and the scrappers were said to have been earning as much as $500 a week collecting them.

Most of the eastern and western flanks of the Chocolates are a buffer zone for the target areas, which are mostly located in the interior washes. The Marines insist the large buffer zones are necessary because the pilots often practice night maneuvers, during which the planes take off from a ship at sea, fly a hundred miles inland, and deliver their “packages” in the Chocolate Mountains. The Marines say they can’t guarantee the pilots will hit only the target areas. One night, for example, military jets strafed a garage east of the gunnery range and put a bullet hole through the window of a car collector’s antique Ford.

After several more miles of driving on a gravel road, we finally arrived at one of the Marine base camps, in an area known as the Little Mule Mountains. The camp consisted of a green mess tent, a sleeping tent, and a few fiber glass outhouses. Bennett explained that the camp was for an explosive ordnance crew working in the area, cleaning up bombs and missiles from the last training exercise.

Waiting for us at the base camp was a retired gunnery sergeant. David Thom. He was a big, affable, gray-haired fellow, whom everyone called, simply, “Gunny” — an affectionate nickname for gunnery sergeants. Gunny, who had agreed to guide us through the gunnery range as a personal favor to Major Lohmond, wore bermuda shorts and puffed on a pipe of aromatic tobacco.

“So you’re happily retired now. Gunny,” Lohmond said.

“I guess you could say I’m happy, sir,” Gunny replied. “I'd be a lot happier if I could find a job.”

For years Gunny’s job was building the plywood tanks, trucks, and railroads that the pilots practiced destroying. Apparently target builders aren’t in big demand out in the civilian world. But I quickly learned that Gunny knew his way around the Chocolate Mountains the way a gopher knows his hole, and I couldn’t imagine how the Marines got along without him.

Gunny herded us into a six-passenger, four-wheel-drive truck, and we headed off across the gravel washes. As we entered the first target area, I saw the landscape was pocked with bomb craters big enough to drive a pickup into. Gunny pointed out some plywood tanks that had been painted black and green, and he shook his head in disgust. Nobody knew how to make a good, simulated plywood Russian tank anymore.

The ground was strewn with old practice bombs. “The blue ones are okay!” Gunny called back to me, “They’re inert. But stay away from the camo-colored ones, they’re still live.”

We stopped for a closer look. Most of the target area, which was on a broad gravel wash, had once been covered with creosote bushes and ocotillo. Now it was nearly nude. The ground was littered with heaps of jagged shrapnel, machine-gun shells, and other assorted war junk. “A lot of this stuff is World War II,” Lohmond said, sifting his fingers through a pile of small-caliber ammunition clips. “We don’t even use some of it anymore.”

The target area was perhaps a hundred acres, but in comparison to the total size of the range, it was very small. In this southern sector, there were only two target areas, though several more proposed target areas were waiting for the approval of environmental impact reports — a recent and frustrating requirement the Marines weren’t used to dealing with. It was gratifying to see how small the target areas were in relation to the entire range, but the effects of the bombing on wildlife extended far beyond the actual impact areas. Bighorn sheep, for example, are known to be very sensitive to noise. I couldn't understand why such a vast mountain range was being jeopardized for two small target areas. It seemed like a horrible waste of land and resources.

Just over the hill from us, the explosive ordnance crew had been gathering up unexploded ordnance and was about to set them off. Gunny called the crew on a portable radio, then announced to us, “We can watch them blow it up if we get there in a hurry!"

American bombs are made with a mechanism that prevents them from exploding if they’re dropped from too low a height. This protects the pilot from being hit by his own shrapnel, but it also is the cause of a very high percentage of unexploded ordnance. In order for the construction crews to work safely building new targets, the explosive ordnance crews first have to sweep the target areas and detonate any unexploded bombs. Besides being very good and practical wartime experience for the crews, it also reduces the number of accidents to the trespassing public and reduces the number of lawsuits for the Marines.

We parked a hundred feet from the heap of bombs and barrels the crew had piled together. There were a half-dozen men laboring in the hundred-degree heat. Their sergeant, a cheerful and intense young man, came over to salute the major. “We’ve got a 1000-pounder and a couple of 500-pounders on the bottom," he said. “The barrels you see on top are old napalm we hauled out here to get rid of. We should be ready in a few minutes.”

The sergeant explained that when a 500-pound bomb strikes soft gravel, if it doesn’t explode, it might sink anywhere from seven to twenty feet into the ground. The crews don’t attempt to dig those bombs out; rather, they detonate them on site. “How long would one of those things sit in the ground before it was safe?” I asked.

“Forever, sir,” the sergeant replied. “As a matter of fact, the longer they sit, the more unstable they become. On the East Coast, there are people still being killed by ordnance from the Civil War.”

A twenty-minute “det" cord was lit, and we retreated to a knoll about a mile away, where we ate our lunches and waited for the fireworks show. “If you hear something whistling by, don’t bother to duck," the sergeant said. “It’ll already be too late.’’ The explosion sent up a mushroom cloud — blacker than most, I was told, because of the napalm barrels.

“Why did we set off the napalm?” one of the men whispered.

“Maybe the major wanted the smell of victory,” his buddy whispered back.

One of the military’s most insistent arguments for renewing the military reservation in the Chocolates is that the area could never be made safe for the public — not that it’s technically impossible, but that the cost of doing so would be prohibitive. A 1982 memo from the state director of the BLM states: “...in view of the future value of geothermal deposits in the Chocolate Mountains, the navy is developing improved decontamination policies and procedures so that contaminated lands may be made useful.” If the Chocolates can be made safe for geothermal development, I wondered, why can’t they also be made safe for wilderness use?

When Congress first officially approved military use of the Chocolates, in 1963, the legislation stated specifically: “ at the time of the termination of the reservation ... the Department of the Navy shall make safe for nonmilitary uses the land withdrawn ... by neutralizing unexploded ammunition, bombs, artillery projectiles, or other explosive objects and chemical agents." Notice that there is no mention of cost. The bill simply states the land shall be made safe.

A few days earlier, I had read that the Air Force had lost a B-1B bomber in Colorado when a flock of birds flew into two of its engines. It seemed to me that if the military can afford to spend $270 million for a bomber that can be demolished by a flock of birds, it can afford the cost of decontaminating the small target areas of an invaluable resource like the Chocolate Mountains.

We returned to the truck and discussed a plan for venturing deeper into the range. I explained that I wanted to see something other than target areas, that I wanted to see what the rest of the Chocolate Mountains looked like. My guides agreed.

Gunny rode shotgun, barking out orders to our silent and apprehensive driver. Gunny pointed in the direction he wanted to go, closed his eyes, and concentrated on the map in his mind. After a while, rising from his trance, he shouted “Stop!” and getting out of the truck, led us to a spring hidden behind a patch of creosote bushes. A little farther on, rising out of his trance again, he shouted, “Go! Go! Step on it!” The befuddled driver tromped on the accelerator, and a moment later we felt the truck’s tires bog down in what had been a hidden patch of sand. We barely churned on through, but without the extra momentum gained by Gunny’s command, we would have been hopelessly stuck.

We stopped at the Pegleg Mine, now a well, where the California Department of Fish and Game has installed a windmill and water tank for bighorn sheep and other wildlife. There wasn’t much wind that day, but now and then a gust would rock the rusty old machinery and it would creak into action. We didn’t see any sign of sheep, but we did see lots of evidence of deer. “It’s a well-known fact among deer hunters that the Chocolate Mountains are the place to come to get your big deer," Lohmond said.

As we drove on, Gunny entertained us with some tales of his encounters with the survivalists who come to the Chocolates to act out their Rambo fantasies, hiding from the Marines, living in hidden camps, and looting the target areas for scrap metal. “One time,” Gunny recalled, "one of our vehicles broke down and we went back to camp, just a few miles away, for help. We were only gone a little while, but by the time we got back, the survivalists had already stole the radiator, the carburetor, and the distributor. The water was still draining from the engine block when we drove up.”

One Rambo camp the Marines came across had been built with water-storage tanks, combat trenches, and bunkers for ambushing invaders. The Marines flew in by helicopter and demolished the camp while its occupants were away. “There’s a lot of very strange characters out here,” Gunny sighed.

Our tour continued onto Salvation Pass, which we reached by way of another broad, sandy wash. Almost the entire eastern slope of the range consists of these washes. The peaks rise up out of the gravel like peanuts in a melting candy bar. Only along the summit and on the western slope do the mountains take on their rugged character.

We got out of the truck and walked up the sandy wash toward the pass. We were only about 1000 feet in elevation, in a mountain range whose highest peak wasn’t much over 2000 feet, but there was a definite impression of loftiness, of removal from the ordinary world. Gunny stopped to puff on his pipe a bit, then said. “One thing about the desert, it’s always quiet here.”

There was another water tank just below the pass, where we found abundant evidence of burros. Pound for pound, burros must be the champion defecators of the animal world. In spite of the sentiments of burro lovers, these four-legged turd machines are a bane to the desert; they compete directly with the bighorn sheep for food and water, and they foul, trample, and desecrate every place they go. The military claims the Chocolates are a de facto wildlife refuge, but if they were truly being managed as a wildlife refuge, the burros would have been removed.

We continued driving north, rising gradually into the real heart of the range: the northern, more rugged sector of the Chocolates that is owned by the navy. That sector is probably the most beautiful area of the range, but unfortunately it is also the most heavily bombed, by far, and will almost certainly not be open to the public again for a very long time. In the middle of the Chocolates, in the area of Surveyor Pass, is a buffer zone — what Lohmond called a “no-drop zone." A fairly passable road crosses the mountains at Surveyor Pass, and the southern sector, the sector that is the subject of the current legislation, lies south of there.

I posed a hypothetical question to Major Lohmond: “I can see how you would need the southern sector as a buffer zone and for flying approach patterns on bombing missions to the northern sector. But I can’t understand why you need to bomb in the southern sector. What do you suppose would happen if Congress told you to continue using the southern sector as a buffer zone — still excluding the public — but restricted your bombing to the already heavily impacted northern sector?”

Lohmond replied immediately, “It sure wouldn’t shut us down,” but he also implied he didn’t think too much of the idea.

By the time we had reached the summit of Surveyor Pass, the sun was getting low and there were long, deep shadows in the canyons. The pass was perhaps a quarter-mile wide — a flat panorama of brilliantly green palo verde trees — and was flanked to the north and south by wonderfully craggy peaks of red and brown. An old trail, maybe even an ancient trail, snaked along the crest, giving access to each of the gnarled canyons I’d seen in my dream.

Everywhere I looked was a world of intriguing complexity and beauty. In terms of aesthetic and wilderness values, the Chocolate Mountains rival any number of areas in the West already designated as wilderness. I couldn’t help but recall Lt. Colonel Isaly’s words that morning: “This is not an irreplaceable resource.” What had the colonel meant by that? And how, I wondered, could a resource such as the Chocolate Mountains be replaced?

I don’t believe there are any regions of the earth so worthless that they can be considered dispensable, not the desert, the arctic, or the ocean. There are no wastelands. One of the most striking ironies in the settlement of the West is that so many of the areas we once considered to be worthless are now turning out to be our most prized treasures. What we have allowed to happen in the Chocolate Mountains is a shameful and grotesque mistake, an insult to nature.

But that mistake is not, as the military would lead us to believe, irreversible. The Chocolate Mountains existed for millions of years before our government began bombing them. The 100 years, or 500 years, or even 10,000 years necessary to return them to their original dignity and grandeur aren’t even significant. Now is as good a time as any to start.

I left my guides and continued in my own truck down the western slope of the Chocolate Mountains and into Niland. Along the way, I stopped several times to look back and study the terrain behind me. It's impossible to see such a place and not want to return to it. Also, I suppose I was looking for some sign of the black pall I had seen in my dream. It had seemed so real.

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